Are the "New Atheists" Really Rational?

by Robert Wright

A reader writes:

To my mind atheism, including the so-called 'New Atheism' project, is not even at its core about God and religion but rationalism, which is to say, a mindset that values reasoned, logical thinking over dogmatism and unwarranted assertions.

I agree that the “new atheists” see their mission as advancing reason. But I think this self-conception can abet self-delusion, making it easier for them to be blind to their own lapses of reason.

For example:

I think Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett are confused in describing religion as a “virus” of the mind. After all, viruses are typically parasiticthey spread at the expense of the host. And Dawkins and Dennett would surely concede that, say, the Catholic belief in the wrongness of contraception has helped the belief’s hoststhe Catholicsflourish in Darwinian terms. If Dawkins and Dennett were being truly rational, they’d call religious belief a “symbiont” that can be either parasitic or “mutualistic” (i.e. win-win), depending on the belief in question. (Not every single virus is parasitic, but viruses are so frequently so, and so commonly conceived that way, that the term “virus” universally connotes parasitism, as Dawkins and Dennett well know.)

What explains this lapse of reason on the part of the champions of reason? I’d guess that their vision is being warped by adversarial instinctsby their their sense of opposition to religious people, or at least to religious beliefs. Human beings naturally, without even thinking about it, cast their enemies in unflattering light, and “virus” is certainly an unflattering label.

This human tendency to view enemies through a biased lens points to another flaw in the thinking of the “new atheists”their belief that when religious people display seemingly irrational intolerance or hatred, the root of the problem is religion. No, the root of this irrationality is the same as the root of Dawkins’ and Dennett’s irrational deployment of the term “virus”. When you view people or ideas as your adversariesview them in zero-sum termsyour unconscious mind does the rest of the work, making you conceive them and depict them in less flattering terms than is objectively warranted. That perception brings out the worst in religion and always has. It doesn’t exactly bring out the best in science, either.